Newsletter Subscribe
Australian Catholics Subscribe

Freedom of religion: What is all the fuss about?

Fr Justin Glyn SJ  |  02 November 2017

Religious freedom often comes up in public debate, most  recently around the issue of allowing same sex couples to marry. Why is it such a hot topic for religious people? 

Religious freedom is important in Australia because we have such a rich tapestry of faith.

The first peoples of Australia have traditionally preserved a deep spirituality and a sense of the sacred in which the land, plants and animals all speak of the Dreamtime. Many hundreds of years ago, they met Muslim Makassan traders from what we now call Indonesia, and Islamic traces can be found in some northern communities’ art and songs. Captain Cook and later European arrivals brought other faiths – Christianity in all its many expressions, and Judaism. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others, including people of no faith at all, have all found a home in this country. It is therefore not surprising that Australia, unlike countries like Britain or Iran, has no state religion.

What a person believes about God, their values and the meaning of their life are usually questions that lie at the core of who they see themselves to be. Because of this, freedom of belief is seen both by the Government and the Church as one of the core rights a person has.

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution says that the state must ‘not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’. The Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae, speaks about the need for ‘immunity from coercion’ in religious belief. So, people are free to practise any or no religion.

All well and good – many countries (including most with an official religion) give that freedom to people. Like all rights, though, freedom of religion can bump up against other rights or duties. 

Let’s take a look at some examples.


1. Debates around marriage

The discussions which we are currently having around same sex marriage are largely about who decides what can be called a marriage: religious groups or the state.

Many religious leaders (of all faiths) are opposed to same sex marriage and claim divine backing for this understanding. For example, the Catholic Church understands marriage as having been established by God as a lifelong, loving partnership of a man and a woman ordered to producing, loving and educating children.

Some people worry that by allowing people of the same sex to marry, something important will be lost from society’s understanding of marriage. They argue that by calling something ‘marriage’ which does not look like traditional marriage, society’s morality will suffer. 

They also fear that if same sex marriage were adopted as law, priests and others might be forced to celebrate marriages where divine law prohibits it. Also, since marriage is strongly connected with children in the Church’s understanding, many are concerned that same sex marriage would give a ‘right’ to children to people who cannot ‘marry’ in the way the Church understands it. They are also worried about their freedom of religion if same sex marriage is widely accepted.

Others – including some religious leaders of all faiths – say that the love of two people, whoever they are, should not be blocked and that same sex marriage is needed to protect the equality of all Australians, whether man or woman, heterosexual or LGBQTI.

Some (non-religious) people would also say that the traditional idea of marriage is an invention of religion, anyway, and that as a society without an established religion, Australia’s government and people should be free to define marriage as they wish. 

So, for different reasons, these people are concerned that the laws which set out something close to a traditional view of marriage violate their freedom of religion.

How do we solve these competing appeals to freedom of religion?

People will have different answers.

Some say while there is much overlap, government and religious groups (including the Catholic Church) have long understood that they don’t necessarily see marriage in the same way. Openness to having children, for example, is not necessary for a marriage to be recognised by the government in Australia (but is necessary in the Catholic Church).

Some people therefore suggest that recognising same sex marriage in a country’s law is a matter for the government. Provided the legislation does not try and force religious groups to adopt the government’s understanding of marriage, they will remain free to marry (or not marry) whoever their understanding of their faith allows. In this way, practising Catholics and others will not have the state’s beliefs forced on them and non-believers, in turn, will not have religious beliefs forced on them.

Questions for discussion: 

What do you think of this solution?

How might this effect organisations like Catholic schools who want to employ people who share their beliefs?

Should people who have businesses (e.g. florists) have the right to deny service to ceremonies that don’t fit their understanding of marriage? 

How might a widespread change in people’s understanding of marriage affect society's tolerance of religious viewpoints? 


2. Debates around acceptable speech

While same sex marriage has been in the news of late, it is not the only area of the public square where freedom of religion meets other values. We also have to remember that questions of religious freedom can look very different depending on whether your religion is in a majority or a minority – especially if your minority is subject to discrimination on other grounds (e.g. ethnicity or skin colour). Aboriginal, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim people in Australia have, at times, had to deal with discrimination. While this has sometimes involved religion, it has often had as much to do with politics or ethnic tensions.

Freedom of speech is often held up as an important Australian value which allows us to hold powerful people to account for wrongdoings and to call out failings in social structures – including religious institutions. 

You may have heard, for example, of the Spotlight investigation by the Boston Globe newspaper in the United States which exposed cover ups of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Few people would complain about this sort of freedom which helps society expose and deal with abuses or corruption.

People have, however, also claimed freedom of speech as a justification for deliberately insulting other people’s religion – not as a way of opening debate or discussion but simply to demonstrate their hatred of, or to claim superiority over, people different to them. 

Think, for example, of the anti-Semitic chants by people marching in Charlottesville in the United States.

Questions for discussion: 

Is ‘hate speech’ justified by freedom of speech? 

Where is the line drawn between insulting someone’s religion and raising questions about the impacts of their beliefs? 

How much weight should be given to the opinions and beliefs of minority groups when deciding what’s acceptable and not acceptable in public discussion? 


3. Debates around religious clothing

Another case where freedom of religion can be an issue is the way we dress. Many Muslim women, for example, wear a head covering (hijab). This may be a single piece robe which doesn’t cover the face (chador), may be matched with a separate cover for the lower half of the face (niqab) or a one piece garment with a grill covering the eyes (burqa). Those wearing the hijab often do so as an act of piety, dressing modestly in accordance with one interpretation of the Qur’an (understood as the word of God in Islam).

Some non-Muslims have argued that the hijab is a sign of subordination of women or claimed that it is, in some way, a safety risk for others. They point to certain Islamic groups and societies in which women are forced to wear hijab and claim that in Western societies, women should show their faces. Some countries, like France, ban the wearing of hijab in certain public places.

Many Muslims who wear the hijab however, state that they do so freely. They point out that a rule which forces women not to dress in a certain way is just as discriminatory as one which forces them to dress in that way. They feel singled out for discrimination based on their faith and suggest that the stated security concerns are really a cover for ethnic or religious discrimination.

Questions for discussion: 

Are there situations in which a government should be able to impose restrictions on how religious people dress or act? 

Why might religious people object to these restrictions? How do we decide what might be legitimate reasons for restricting people’s dress and what might not be a legitimate reason for doing so? 

This is just a taster to introduce you to some of the issues around religious freedom. As you can see, most people agree with the basic idea but different people hold different views – and may well have reason to believe in them sincerely. It is good to listen and respectfully share understandings – but always remembering that we are dealing with the things that are most precious to us.



Topic tags: politicsandreligion, religiousandculturaldiversity

Request permissions to reuse this article

This website uses cookies to give you the best, most relevant experience.

Using this website means you are okay with this.

You can change your cookies settings at any time and find out more about them by following this link